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Wednesday, May 30, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ressam confirms millennium plot: L.A. airport was target

Seattle Times staff reporters

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Convicted terrorist Ahmed Ressam has told federal prosecutors that Los Angeles International Airport was to be a target of a millennium attack by Islamic fundamentalists, according to a source familiar with talks between Ressam and federal prosecutors.

Ressam, it was revealed late last week, has been cooperating with authorities in hopes of winning a reduced sentence.

Los Angeles International Airport has been a suspected target for months, ever since FBI agents found it circled along with two other L.A.-area airports - in Long Beach and Ontario - on a map found in Ressam's Montreal apartment.

Agents have also speculated that Ressam and the Montreal-based terrorist network to which he belonged may have had other targets, ranging from the Space Needle to the TransAmerica tower in San Francisco to New York's Times Square.

Until now, it was all speculation. Ressam, however, has broken 17 months of silence and confirmed that Los Angeles International -- the nation's third-busiest airport, catering to more than 175,000 people a day -- was a target.

Federal prosecutors and the FBI declined to comment on the case, as did Los Angeles International Airport Police Chief Bernard Wilson, who referred calls to the FBI in Seattle.

It is not clear, however, that the airport was the only target. When arrested, Ressam had enough explosives, bomb-making material and timers in the trunk of his rental car to make four powerful car bombs, according to testimony at his trial.

Ressam was arrested Dec. 14, 1999, at the Black Ball Ferry Terminal in Port Angeles as he entered the U.S. from Canada in a rental car loaded with explosives and bomb-making materials. The arrest sent shudders through the White House and the National Security Council, coming on the heels of information from Jordan and elsewhere of planned attacks on Americans and Western tourist sites in the Middle East around the start of the millennium.

Agents in the U.S. and Canada quickly identified Ressam through his fingerprints and linked him to a suspected terrorist "sleeper," or dormant, cell activated in Montreal.

Then-President Clinton ordered the borders tightened and heightened security at airports.

Meantime, Seattle Mayor Paul Schell canceled the city's New Year's Eve celebration. Federal-court papers had stated that Ressam had intended to leave his explosives-laden rental car in a hotel parking lot, keys left in the ignition, in the shadow of the Space Needle, the site of the planned millennium party and the city's most distinctive landmark.

Schell was both criticized and praised for the decision.

Schell is in Stockholm with the Chamber of Commerce. The mayor's spokesman, Dick Lilly, said he had no comment on the information. "This is the first I've heard of it," Lilly said.

Ressam's trial was moved to Los Angeles from Seattle because of publicity and security concerns. After the map was found in Ressam's apartment, prosecutors urged U.S. District Judge John Coughenour to reconsider the change of venue, but he declined.

During the trial, prosecutors introduced evidence that they said hinted that Ressam may have had targets in California. There was the map with circles drawn around the three L.A.-area airports and a French tourism book with Ressam's fingerprint found on a photograph of the pyramid-shape TransAmerica building in San Francisco.

Defense attorneys discounted the evidence, and the government acknowledged that the circles around the airports went unnoticed for several months.

Defense attorneys suggested that Canadian authorities may have added them and that Ressam was a dupe of other terrorists and had only limited knowledge of what was in the trunk of his car or how it was to be used once he got it across the border.

Ressam was convicted last month on all counts, including a charge of conspiracy to commit an act of international terrorism, and is facing at least 50 years - and as much as 140 years - in federal prison.

At the time, sources said prosecutors intended to use that pending prison term to get Ressam to cooperate.

That occurred in the past several weeks, when Ressam agreed to break his silence and provide information on the plot to federal prosecutors both here and in New York, sources confirmed. Canadian and French authorities also are monitoring the talks.

Ressam is scheduled to be sentenced June 28, although it is possible that could be delayed. One reason is that prosecutors may want him to testify during the upcoming trial of Mokhtar Haouri, an alleged co-conspirator, in New York.

During the trial, prosecutors linked Ressam to a terrorist cell in Montreal, but a federal judge limited their introduction of evidence that tied him to the organization of Osama bin Laden, a Saudi multimillionaire who is suspected of backing several terrorist attacks against U.S. targets.

Ressam attended bin Laden-financed terrorist training camps in Afghanistan in 1998, and several of his former roommates are in custody in France and England in connection with terrorist plots.

Indeed, on the same day he was convicted in L.A., Ressam also was convicted in absentia and sentenced to five years in prison in France for his involvement in the terrorist "Roubaix Gang," suspected of bank robberies and bombings in Paris and Belgium.

Mike Carter can be reached at 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com. Steve Miletich can be reached at 206-464-3302 or smiletich@seattletimes.com.

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